As a young man in the 21st Century, growing up while great advancements have been being made in special effects and animation, it’s easy not to hold some of the great films of the past in low regard. I watch the old Universal Horror films at Halloween time and do not get scared. I watch the old Superman serials and let my mouth hang open during the animated flying sequences. I get bored as I see the same stock footage used in cheap films over and over again. Besides the effects, lack of emotion in the characters and poor plotlines could easily ensure boredom in modern viewers who are used to action-packed, gory, and high tech pictures. However, there is one black and white film from the fifties that continues to amaze me to this day for its quality and emotion-laced storyline.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the American version of the Japanese film Gojira and the first of the on-going Godzilla franchise, was released in 1956. The Japanese version had come out two years before, but never reached far outside of Japan. The film only appeared in some small Chinatown theaters in the United States, where it was eventually discovered. In order to appeal to a wider audience, American actor Raymond Burr (known for his role as Perry Mason) shot several new scenes that were superimposed onto the edited original footage. The resulting plot had Burr’s character Steve Martin, a Chicago reporter en route to Cairo, get caught up in a developing story about mysterious ship destructions off the coast of Japan. Joining a team of scientists tasked with uncovering the source of the ship disasters, Martin and the scientists find themselves on an island under attack by a thirty-story tall monster. Naming him Godzilla based on legends of the islanders, and determining that he was awakened from prehistoric slumber by America’s atomic bombs, Tokyo prepares itself for yet another invasion.
To this day I still have trouble viewing the film without grasping the concept that Godzilla was actually an actor in a rubber suit. The film is shot so masterfully with sets constructed very lifelike that there was only one scene in the entire movie that was obviously that of a toy and not a life-sized object. I still watch the movie believing that Godzilla was a giant and that the city he is destroying is in fact Tokyo and not toy sets. Unlike some of the overly-dramatic or emotionless characters that existed in films during that time, Raymond Burr gives a strong performance, and the film’s documentary-style adds to the suspense. The opening scene, a glimpse of the horror to come during the film, is an instant attention grabber.
While many of its numerous sequels descended into cheap comedy territory, this film captures the seriousness and suspense that might actually occur if a giant kaiju were rampaging across the country. Obviously people would be frightened and there would be massive casualties, which are greatly focused on in this picture but rarely touched upon in later Godzilla films. This makes Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, in my opinion, a true science fiction film as it focuses on potential reality instead of cosmic or romantic fantasy as several of the later films do. The fact that a new blockbuster Godzilla film was just released owes to the legacy of this fifties classic. Just as Godzilla is King of the Monsters, this movie is king of classic monster flicks.